I recently wrote a short story in response to a call for submissions for an anthology of fairy tale retellings. It wasn't chosen, but it felt good to finish something. Everything is a work in progress these days. And because I like this finished little story, I decided to share it.
Under the Olive Tree
She comes to me in my dreams. A sweetly smiling girl, like anyone from the farming community of my childhood. A sexy and sophisticated woman from the city I ran to. A man with a friendly smile. Young, old, ageless. She comes in forms of beings I’ve never seen –inhuman and breathtakingly beautiful. She comes as a warm dessert wind, on the scent of salt water and kabobs on a grill, on the crackle of lightning from a spring storm, on the taste of fresh bread, sweet dates, and toasted sesame. She comes with smiles and flattery.
She whispers it into my ear. With a wink and a grin, with a hand lightly resting on my chest, with a friendly hug, or a shy smile. With a laugh as she runs away, gesturing for me to follow.
She comes as a lover, or friend, or family. Her request is specific, but she doesn’t care what form it takes.
Her visits are like the Sea. At first glance, beautiful and peaceful, full of people in sail boats and kayaks, just enjoying the sun and water and sky. But storm clouds roll in quickly, their darkness accompanied by gusts and wind. At first, I am calm, happy. But her mistake is in her desperation. Her velvety hand becomes an iron claw, her friendly hug a drowning embrace.
So I spend as little time in my dreams as possible. I roam my prison, never seeing my captor yet always aware of her presence. I tend the garden, I read, I write, I eat, and I walk a dirt ring inside the high stone wall. I sleep only when necessary. When I’m awake, I can pretend I’m free. I can pretend that this is my home, my garden, my wall. I can pretend that the food that appears on the patio table each day is prepared by my cook. But when I climb most nights to the top of the stone wall to watch the sun sink below the horizon, I take a deep breath of the desert air and I know that none of it is mine. That I am captive.
At 16, I went Tel Aviv, desperate for excitement and culture and a faster pace than life on the kibbutz. I found work with a cousin of my mother, helping him in his kabob stand near the beach and renting a small room from him and his wife. The arrangement worked for several years, until my aunt died and my uncle decided to move back to the kibbutz. He sold the kabob stand, and I crashed on a friend’s couch, and set out to look for work.
I don’t remember where I first heard the rumor. No one knew where they first heard it. A friend of a friend knew someone who’d heard of a great job for someone who was handy around a garden. I was the child of a kibbutz. I was born with dirt under my fingernails. “Good money.” “Kind of mysterious.” All you had to do, the rumor went, is drive out to this estate in the middle of nowhere. No need to contact anyone first, just show up. There must be some kind of interview, but no one was quite sure what.
“Maybe you just trim some trees,” my friend Isaac laughed.
“Bring a pot of herbs with you,” Sophie chimed in, “just in case.”
No one took it seriously, but it kept showing up in my life, in conversation. I’d overhear someone talk about it. Friend after friend mentioned it when I said I was looking for work. I dismissed it until my money started running out and my friends looked longingly at their couches. Until it seemed like a good idea to get out of the city for a while. Finally, I borrowed Sophie’s car and set out into the desert.
“Be back by nine,” she said as she handed over the keys. “I’m going out."
I followed the rumored directions, almost missing the road. Isaac’s uncle said the road was almost covered in overgrown grape vines and thorns, but that I might be able to see the ruins of a wrought iron gate. At that point in the conversation his wife had come into the room, mumbling in Yiddish before spitting in contempt. That is what I should have paid attention to.
I drove for a while, the landscape rocky and barren, but with patches of overgrown, scrubby plants. I could tell that during the Spring rains it must be almost lush. Before I was ready, I turned the corner and a large stone wall loomed in front of me. The wall was so high and wide it was all I could see. The road ended at a large wooden door. I sat in the car for a moment, thinking about how this was all a little weird. But I was curious, the adventure of it called to me. I stepped out of the car, leaving the keys in the inignition. I wonder sometimes if the car is still there or if someone found it and took off.
As I approached the door, I heard whispering.
“Hello?” I called. Nothing. The wind, perhaps?
I raised my hand to the door and it swung open.
Not wind. Definitely whispering.
I walked under the arched doorway, and the door swung shut behind me. In front of me was a large stone house that looked as though it was formed at the creation of the world, grown up out of the earth it sat on. While the house was dark and cold and mysterious, the stones and rock did not draw my attention. No, it was the earth. Dark, rich soil unlike anything you find around Tel Aviv. The kind of soil we only dreamed about on the kibbutz. Milk and honey kind of soil. And growing out of that soil…everything. Trees and bushes and grasses and flowers and vines. I began walking, identifying herbs and vegetables among the decorative foliage. It was overgrown chaos, as though a child had dumped every seed imaginable into one big bowl, scooped out a handful and flung it into the wind.
I wandered through the compound., through the house. It was desolate, yet there was a presence everywhere. I kept turning around behind me, and peeking around corners trying to catch a glimpse of someone, anyone. I walked through rooms full of simple wooden furniture, thick Persian rugs on the stone floors, but nothing to indicate someone lived there. The kitchen was equipped, but the pantry bare. The floor to ceiling bookshelves in the library were overflowing, but even there nothing personal took up the space.
After several hours, I gave up and returned to the gate. A part of me was not surprised to find it locked. It seems I had stumbled into my own personal fairy tale. It’s not as romantic as the books.
The dreams began after five days, and panic after seven. I spent a full 72 hours digging, clawing, screaming, beating myself up in an attempt to get out, then passed out, exhausted. I’m not sure how long I slept, but it was a dreamless sleep. When I woke, the first person I thought of was my mother. Growing up, it often seemed as though my mother spoke only in proverbs, which she doled out to me and my brothers and sisters like vitamins. As I lay on the couch where I’d collapsed, two of those sayings made their way from the storage area of my brain to its consciousness:
He that can't endure the bad, will not live to see the good.
Do not ask questions of fairy tales.
I determined two things:
I would look every day for a way out, a way home.
In the meantime, I would endure the best way I knew how.
I got up and walked toward the square of light coming from an outside door, opening it to the tangled mess that surrounded my prison.
I tend the garden, I read, I write, I eat, and I walk a dirt ring inside the high stone wall. I sleep only when necessary.
The days pass in a disjointed rhythm, and I have given up keeping track of them. My hair grows shaggy and I have the beard of a rabbi. A razor appears in my bathroom, but in a fit of rage I hurl it against the wall with a scream.
“I. Don’t. Want. A. Damn. Razor!” I scream, punctuating each word with a stomp of one booted foot against the plastic and metal. “If you want to give me something, let me go!” My cries echo against the stone, but the only thing I hear is the sound of my ragged breathing.
At first, my gardening consisted of merely pulling weeds with my bare hands, then one day I discovered a small gardening shed 10 yards from the back patio. New tools and equipment appear periodically as I work my way around the compound. Now, I get creative, and order emerges from the chaos. I lay native stones into a path that winds its way through the vegetation. Through a grape arbor, orchards, an olive grove, vegetable patches, and clusters of herbs. Through beds of flowers, nearly every kind I’ve ever seen and many I haven’t. Time passes and I increasingly think of home – of the love my mother and my grandfather had for the earth, for coaxing life from the ground. And I begin to see the garden not just as something to do, but as a pleasure. In this stasis that feels like death, the garden is a connection to life. It’s a connection to the very essence of who I am, to my heritage and DNA. I even come to love the beauty of the garden’s chaos.
The green spring rains move into dry heat, and the landscape takes on the muted tones of summer. Even in this unbelievable garden – a word which feels increasingly inadequate – the plants know it’s summer in the desert. As I work, I begin to think I must be coming close to the beginning, completing the circle inside the wall. An ache builds in my chest at the thought. I know enough to know there will always be work to do, but there’s a permanence to the thought of upkeep, rather than creation and discovery.
But I continue. I tend the garden, I read, I write, I eat, and I walk a dirt ring inside the high stone wall. I sleep only when necessary.
I round a curve in the wall, moving past the bed of Rose of Sharon, Mint, and Anise that I tended the day before. I glance at the bed, allowing a small smile to touch my lips at the thought of the many pots of Rose of Sharon on my mother’s small patio. As I turn my eyes back in front of me, I see a patch of ground with more pattern and thought than anything else I’ve seen in the garden. A low stone wall, barely knee high, surrounds a gnarled olive tree, its trunk so twisted and branches stretched so far that I know it must be hundreds of years old. In front of the tree sits something completely covered by vines, brambles that nearly fill the space within the wall.
I walk toward the brambles, pulling on my leather work gloves. As I near the wall, a cold wind gusts across the garden, ruffling my shaggy hair and rabbi’s beard. I pause inches from the stone circle, appraising the dense vines and thinking of the best way to remove them. I reach out my hand, grasping a bunch of vines that have crept over the wall, and gasp as a wave of emotion washes over me. I stagger backwards, collapsing on the dew-damp ground. My chest aches and tears flow from my eyes. Pain, sadness, confusion, anger. Fear. Loneliness. So much loneliness.
I sit and catch my breath, my mother’s words coming to mind again for the first time in….well, however long I’ve been here.
He that can't endure the bad, will not live to see the good.
Do not ask questions of fairy tales.
I stand, take a deep breath and approach the wall again. This time, I am ready for the assault. I pull out a large knife from the tool belt on my hips and step over the wall. Using my knife and my gloved hands I rip and cut and fling the vegetation behind me. Tears spring to my eyes, and I bring to mind an old song my mother used to sing to us, repeating it like a meditation, focusing my mind on something besides the sadness, while my hands and arms keep busy.
A beymele, a beymele
Hob ikh mir farzetst.
Gegrobn mit der lopete
Mit vase res banetst…
A little tree, a little tree,
I have planted.
I have dug with my spade,
And watered it….
I feel an urgency to reach the olive tree, to uncover the ground, to see the center of these brambles.
I stop, hand fisted around a cluster of vines and I think about a piece of the song repeating through my head:
…I’ll pick flowers
Under my little tree
I’ll lie down…
The urgency returns, and with it an epiphany, incredulousness, and many questions.
I could just clear a path straight to the tree, but something in me needs to see the circle entirely clear of the overgrowth. I don’t know how long I work, moving steadily around circle in a tightening spiral. My body is damp with exertion, my shirt clinging in patches to my back and chest. Finally, I am close enough I can touch the trunk of the olive tree. I rest my hand against it for a moment, then with a few swift slices and tugs, the last of the vines come free.
At my feet is a small marble statue. From above, it looks at first like a lump, a nothing. I crouch down next to it and can see that it’s actually a child. In remarkable detail, I see a girl curled on her side, knees drawn up to her chest, arms wrapped tightly around them. Her eyes are closed, and tears are frozen on her cheeks.
I pull off my gloves, set my knife into the dirt at the base of the tree and lay down in the grass next to the statue. I lay a hand gently on the girl’s hunched shoulder and close my eyes. I am asleep instantly.
In my dream – vision? – I open my eyes and am standing next to the olive tree. It is not alone in this dream, but the center of a grove. The tree is thinner, straighter, younger. In front of the tree stands a girl.
“My name is Joseph,” I say. “I’m…” happy? relieved? “So we finally meet.”
“I am Lina,” she says.
We stare at each other across the five feet that separate us.
“That’s it?” I ask. “’I am Lina?’ I think I’ve earned a little more than that.”
The girl closes her eyes. “I am not used to being so direct,” she says. Her voice is scratchy, even in the dream. She opens her eyes and clasps her hands in front of her, looking me in the eye as she tells her story, her dark eyes unreadable.
“A long, long time ago, I was a terrible girl. My family is – was – very wealthy. I was an only child, and given anything I wanted. I was very spoiled, and very mean. A bully. There was a widow woman in our village, very old, and I used to mock her every time I saw her. I would say cruel things. She had a beautiful garden. I would run through it after a rain, crush the flowers, and help myself to the dates, lemons, and olives on her trees.” Lina breaks eye contact and lowered her head. Her face turns bright red. “I would even relieve myself sometimes in her garden.” Lina shuddered. “I was an animal, but she ignored me. Until one summer her granddaughter came to visit from another village. She was very pretty and very sweet. She had a little doll that she carried everywhere and I decided I wanted it. My father tried to buy it from her, but of course she would not part with it. It was her treasure. The day before she left, I stole the girl’s doll and smashed it with a rock. The old woman may have ignored the terrible way I treated her, but after I mistreated her granddaughter, her grandmother became so angry.” The girl shakes her head. “It was a righteous anger, full of every terrible thing I’d done to her. In her justification and love for her granddaughter she accessed ancient magic, and she used it to punish me.”
Lina spreads her arms wide, gesturing to the garden I have tended for so long. “This is my curse,” she says. “I became a part of her garden, trapped until my parents died, then trapped unless someone in this world loved me. Her curse allowed me no communication, except through dreams. But as you know,” her arms drop to her side and tears slide down her face, “those have been ineffective.”
“How many people have you brought here?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “I don’t remember. It’s been so long,” her last word ends on a single sob.
“I’m still a monster, keeping people captive. But once they are here, I don’t know how to let them leave,” she says, her eyes full of so much sorrow that I believe her. “They are trapped with me.” She wipes her hands across her cheeks, rubbing away the tears. “You are the first to tend the garden,” she says. “I thought that might mean something, but maybe not. I certainly deserved this fate,” tears pool in her eyes again. “But I just want to be free. I would change things if I could.”
“Maybe you can have a second chance,” I say. “What happens if the curse is lifted?”
“I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter, because it never will. You don’t love me, and I am tired of holding people captive, tired of trying so hard.” Her voice becomes a whisper. “I’m just really, really tired.”
I lift my head and looked around the garden. “It does mean something,” I say. “I love this garden,” I say. “I have hated being captive here, but I love this garden.” I reach out and place a hand on her shoulder. “If you had only asked instead of forcing me, I might have taken care of it anyway.”
“I’m still here, aren’t I?” she say.
“Maybe," I say, "all you need to do is let me go. Will you let me go?”
She hesitates, and her fear nearly knocks me down. It's the fear that has kept everyone who comes through the gates captive.
“Of course,” she replies. “If you can.” Her despair and hopelessness bring tears to my own eyes.
“Well, come with me.”
Her eyes are surprised. “But this is the dream,” she says.
I reach out my hand to her and smile for the first time since I left Tel Aviv. “Let’s give it a try.”
She grasps my steady hand with her small shaky one. Together, we turn toward the gate. “Where will we go once we’re free,” she asks, trying to adopt my confidence.
I think of my grandfather, my mother, my sisters. I see this girl who desperately needs a family.